Rethinking the Article as the Basic Unit of Journalism

A spate of recent blog posts have, independently it seems, questioned the traditional preeminence of the article as the basic unit of journalism.

The first of these, chronologically, is a liveblogged review by Adam Tinworth of a News:Rewired conference session on liveblogging. In it, Tinworth summarizes a point made by presenter Matt Wells of the Guardian:

Matt thinks that liveblogs are one of the best ways of covering stories that don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. The inverse pyramid story may be the single biggest reason that journalists are mistrusted. It encourages sensationalism.

A day later, Jeff Jarvis cited a number of examples of real-time news coverage that are leading him, as he put it, to

think of the article not as the goal of journalism but as a value-added luxury or as a byproduct of the process.

Then Monday Jenn Webb interviewed Cheezburger’s Ben Huh about his recently announced project to revitalize news coverage. Her final question focused on the article:

Do you think the “article,” as a form, needs to be reinvented?

Ben Huh: I think it should be augmented and, in some cases, tossed out entirely.

While Jarvis stays neutral on the value of the article form (despite Matthew Ingram’s reaction that he doesn’t), Wells, as channeled by Tinworth, sees it as a potentially misleading one. By forcing a “clear beginning, middle and end” on a set of events, Wells suggests, the meaning of those events may be exaggerated or otherwise distorted.

I don’t think that articles always mold a narrative structure onto events, but we generally expect them to do so. And it’s certainly the nature of any narrative to impose meaning on formlessness. That’s why we like narratives and use them so often.

But liveblogging, tweeting, and other real-time modes of expression don’t really abandon narrative. Rather, they give greater control to someone other than the writer or assembler in the process of creating the story. Those co-creators include the various people whose statements and data are being aggregated as well as the reader trying to make sense of it all.

As Jarvis strives to make clear, the rise of real-time formats doesn’t eliminate the article as an important mode of presentation. But it does suggest that other forms of expression or units of information are gaining power and prominence in journalism.

I’ve argued elsewhere recently that freelance writers should stop thinking of the word as their primary unit of value. In the same way, journalists in general may want to stop thinking of the article as their basic unit of output. That’s not to not say that freelancers should stop using words, or that journalists should stop producing articles. Those items are still essential to the craft. But they are not the only or necessarily the best way to help people understand the world. If journalists aren’t open to real-time formats like liveblogging and Twitter, they are failing both themselves and their audience.

 

2 thoughts on “Rethinking the Article as the Basic Unit of Journalism

  1. This resonates; in a community context (which I believe is the principal context for B2B digital media), articles by journalists are absolutely not basic units. Rather, journalists are rapidly becoming community ring-masters more than story-tellers. As such, they won’t get measured on the articles they write, but on the conversations they facilitate.

  2. That’s a great way to look at it–in fact, I think that’s been true for a long time in B2B publishing.

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